Around 218 million women in developing economies are unable to access effective family planning, with potentially devastating impacts on their health and wellbeing, as well as their opportunities for education and employment. This matters now, more than ever: during the COVID-10 pandemic women and girls are living with an increased risk of domestic violence, early marriage and unintended pregnancies.
Unfortunately, the pandemic also threatens to undo recent gains in access to family planning. Some governments labelled family planning services as ‘non-essential’ in an effort to relieve the pressure on over-stretched healthcare systems. Even more alarmingly, the UK government recently cut £180 million of funding to the UNFPA Supplies Partnership. This represents a massive 85% of the UK’s contribution, which could have helped prevent 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies, and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.
The international community must not follow their lead, nor lose sight of the long-term strategic benefits of family planning services. For every dollar invested in family planning, there is a $120 return in accrued annual benefits as a result of reduced infant and maternal mortality, and increased economic growth.
Business has a crucial role in achieving universal access to family planning services
At a recent international LinkedIn Event on World Population and Gender Equality in the post-Covid Era, we discussed how businesses can play a role in ensuring universal access to family planning services. Dr. Sameera Al Tuwaijri, Lead Health Specialist, World Bank and Mariarosa Cutillo, Chief of Strategic Partnerships, United Nations Population Fund made clear that governments and international organisations now view business as an active and essential partner.
For example, the private sector joined with governments, UN agencies, women’s and youth groups at the 2019 Nairobi Summit on ICPD to reaffirm their shared commitment to reproductive health, women’s empowerment and gender equality as ‘pillars of sustainable development’. At this summit, $8 billion was pledged to eliminate preventable maternal deaths and gender-based violence, as well as ensure that every woman has access to family planning by 2030.
Amongst those who made commitments at the Nairobi Summit, was Bayer – a life science company whose mission is ‘Health for All, Hunger for None’. For more than fifty years, Bayer has empowered women through education programs and rights-based family planning in more than 130 countries. Bayer committed to help provide access to modern contraceptives for 100 million women per year by 2030 – not limited to Bayer products. Board executives’ remuneration is linked to achieving sustainability goals like this one.
Focused on women in low- and middle-income countries, Bayer’s activities increase awareness of family planning options and safeguard their availability and affordability. For example, since July 2020, Bayer has collaborated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University on The Challenge Initiative. TCI supports access to family planning for over a million women in East and West Africa, India and the Philippines. It also provides coaching (including online learning) to strengthen the capacity of service providers to implement high-impact family planning best practices.
During the pandemic, many companies faced challenges to its supply chains, including new barriers to trade. Bayer prioritised the uninterrupted supply of contraceptives to USAID, UNFPA and other key partners, resulting in two million more women being able to access family planning over the past year. This achievement was only possible through the dedication of Bayer’s employees, a €250m investment in production facilities, and the strength of its international partnerships.
Taking an ecosystems approach through multilateral partnerships
Like so many of the challenges that we face, universal access to family planning can only be achieved through the bold action of multilateral cross-border partnerships that take an ecosystem approach to change.
The ecosystem approach analyses problems holistically in order to create economic, social and regulatory/policy environments which enable people to thrive. It recognises the interlinkages between pressing social issues. For example, access to family planning is inextricably bound up with the recovery of local and national economies, the recognition of women’s human rights, women’s economic empowerment, stable healthcare systems, cultural norms, racial discrimination, tackling the climate crisis and many other factors. Systemic shifts are made when broad coalitions of actors come together, each bringing different strengths and capabilities to the table.
Companies do not need to operate within the medical field to make a contribution. For example, technology and online education platforms are crucial to TPI’s work sharing best practice; there are excellent examples of multilateral partnerships driving public health awareness campaigns; and businesses are working with employees and supply chain partners to support women living with domestic violence including provision of emergency contraception. Businesses can also leverage their advocacy networks, asking policy-makers to treat family planning as the essential service it is.
In our experience, successful multilateral partnerships are built around long-term commitments to specific shared goals, clearly defined roles and expectations, and a mindset of humility which enables collaborative learning. During the pandemic, it was incredible to witness how businesses leveraged existing partnerships – and formed new ones – to rapidly innovate and scale solutions. Business Fights Poverty and the Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School conducted research into how the National Business Compact on Coronavirus in Kenya was able to launch a successful public awareness and public health response. The resulting report suggests how this model of partnership might provide a framework for tackling systemic challenges as we rebuild better.
Above all, family planning is a tool to restore agency to women and girls. Bayer is increasing its portfolio of contraceptive products available to its international partners, so that individual women can choose which option best suits them. Pregnancy and complications in childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19 years of age, so specific channels to engage young people are critical. In fact, partnerships should involve women and girls in the design and implementation of family planning programmes, equipping them to be leaders and change agents in their own communities.
There are little more than 100 months to achieve the SDGs, including universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Despite the challenges, we are optimistic that with all hands on deck, we can transform the lives of over 200 million women and girls who currently cannot choose if, when and with whom to have children. If you employ women, include women in your supply chains, or count women amongst your customers, there is a role for you in this work.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Annabel Beales at Business Fights Poverty and Ariane de Hoog at Bayer in the preparation of this article.